Category Archives: British Library Crime Classics

The Santa Klaus Murder – Mavis Doriel Hay

One of the highlights of my Christmas reading, and reading in general, last year was A Mystery in White a Christmas crime classic from the wonderful British Libraries crime classics series which I have been buying throughout the year since. So I decided to follow that tradition this year with another of their Christmas crime, The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay which I have been devouring over Christmas and Boxing Day. There is nothing like a murder mystery to take you away from the Christmas stress, something observed at the start of the book.

9780712356305

British Library Crime Classics, 1936 (2015 edition), paperback, fiction, 284 pages, bought by myself by myself

Those days of waiting for Christmas, after the family has collected at Flaxmere, are always difficult. The children are excited and noisy and everyone is on edge, being afraid that things won’t go smoothly and that Christmas Day will not be quite the festival of good will which we have a right to expect. Of course, none of us anticipated the shocking tragedy which was to occur, but I always do feel that families which have once broken up are best kept separate.

The Melbury family have all come together for Christmas despite the fact that there are several fractures within them. Lording it, quite literally, over them all is Sir Osmond Melbury who has spent much of his life dictating his children’s life through bribery over the inheritance they will or won’t have dependent on their actions. Well, bar his son George who being the son and having extended the line is safe in the knowledge he will be left with plenty. For the daughters it is quite a different affair. Hilda married and had a daughter, Carol, with someone Sir O didn’t like and who since being widowed hasn’t been disowned yet nor has she been helped. Edith and Eleanor have been wiser marrying the men that their father deemed fit; though one was lucky marrying someone she could love, the other a man she would have to despite loving someone else. Youngest of the brood Jennifer is now in a dilemma as she loves a man, Philip her father doesn’t, in fact invited this Christmas is Oliver who Sir Osmond is clearly much the keener on, shame then when he comes to be the one, dressed up as Santa, who discovers Sir Osmond shot in the head on Christmas Day and becomes the prime suspect.

Yet it soon turns out there are many more suspects that might have wanted to do away with Sir Melbury outside his own children as Colonel Halstock, Chief Constable of Haulmshire, discovers when he is called in to investigate. There is his sister, Aunt Mildred, who feels hard done by. There is the young pretty housekeeper/secretary, Grace Portisham, who seems to want to take over everything in the household and have it just so, and who might have something going on with the new chauffeur Bingham who she hired getting rid of lifelong chauffeur Ashmore. Oh and then there is Kenneth Stour who turns up to help the Colonel out but who might also have a motive as he is connected to one of the household in a way too. So many possible murderers appear when you’ve used your money to rule and dominate. Oh and I haven’t mentioned the clever plot twist which we learn early on either…

At the end of August, as soon as Eleanor, Edith and George had news from Jennifer of their father’s illness, they, and George’s wife, all swopped down on Flaxmere like birds of prey. They hovered around, with flutterings and solicitous inquiries after his health, which thinly disguised their anxious peering and pecking after any shred of evidence to the likeliness of his sudden death and the possibility that he was reconsidering his will.
“Very nice of you all to be so fond of me!” Sir Osmond sneered. “Now you can go back to your grouse and think no more of me until Christmas.”

You see before his death Sir Oswald, not being a complete patriarchal monster – just mostly, had decided it would be fun to have someone dress as Santa to give the gifts away, who I mentioned is none other than Oliver who becomes prime suspect. Well, this all gets all the more tricky when early on it is deduced that there was not one Santa Klaus but two, but were they working together or was one working with someone else in the house, or alone, to bump off the old miser and benefit from the money left after his death. This is all within the first 80 or so pages. So Colonel Halstock has a right old job on his hands and we the reader do too as we try and figure it all out, which of course I loved.

I really enjoyed Mavis Doriel Hay’s plotting and structure with the book. As the book starts out we are taken into the accounts of Philip, Hilda, Jennifer, Mildred and Grace who all give us their view of events on the lead up to the murder when Colonel Halstock takes over. We later (not much so I am not spoiling anything) discover that these were all accounts asked for from Halstock so he can try and work out who, if any of them, are telling the truth. This makes them all unreliable narrators, one of my favourite things in fiction, as some may remember things wrong or simply be lying whether it is to cover some family/illicit secret or the crime itself. It makes the plot all the trickier whilst making the characters all the more three dimensional. Brilliant.

I was shocked at the way these young people lied or prevaricated on the slightest excuse and then came out with another tale and confidently expected to be believed.

I good mystery set in an old rambling house and I found that The Santa Klaus Murder gave me exactly what I would want in that realm of the genre. It is packed with plot twists, a whole host of unreliable and secretive suspects plus has all the domestic drama that comes in a novel where familial inheritance and gain is key, whether that is the killers motive or not. I whizzed through it and didn’t even mind that we had only one murder to solve, I quite like a few to get my little grey cells ticking (ha), I was so whipped up in just which Santa Klaus had done it, if they had been helped and who they actually were underneath the fancy dress. It was just the escapism that I needed from all the Christmas madness going on in the real world, festive British Library Crime Classics are going to have to become a new tradition for me every year. I am also thrilled I have the other two Mavis Doriel Hay novels on my shelves for future reading any season.

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Filed under British Library Crime Classics, Mavis Doriel Hay, Review

Mystery in White; A Christmas Crime Story – J. Jefferson Farjeon

Well I think I might have just discovered the perfect Christmas read if ever there was one. Mystery in White was first published back in the 1930’s in that golden age of crime, yet for some reason went out of print until The British Library republished it as part of their Crime Classics series, along with many other forgotten novels, this year. Believe it or not in the lead up to Chrimbles it became one of the biggest selling paperbacks, having read it I can see why and I wish I had read it sooner (or could travel back in time in a time bus) to make sure you all had it in all your stockings and those of the people you love most.

9780712357708

British Library Crime Classics, 1937 (2014 edition), paperback, fiction, 256 pages, bought by myself by myself

On Christmas Eve, along the track between London and Manchester, a train becomes stranded in the snow. Those onboard must decide if they can stick it out in their carriages or if it might be best to seek shelter somewhere else. In one carriage a group of strangers, bar brother and sister David and Lydia, all decide that they will try and head to the nearest station of Hemmersby some miles away. Yet as the snow starts to fall harder they realise they are lost, until they (literally) stumble upon a country house. A country house where the door is unlocked, the larder is full, the kettle is over boiling and there is absolutely no one at home. Shelter overrules suspicion or concern, that is until the fires are lit and the passengers are warm and then the feeling that there is something very wrong with the situation starts to arise.

“Funny!” said the owner of the head. “Tea all dressed up and nowhere to go! I say, David, what do you make of it?”
David turned from the couch.
“There’s still upstairs,” he replied. “I’ll tackle that, if you’ll stand by here.”
“Wait a moment!” exclaimed Lydia.
“Why?”
“I don’t know. Yes, I do. What I meant was be careful.”
“That doesn’t explain anything.”
“Nothing explains anything! If it were a fine day it might be quite natural to run out of a house for a few moments while a kettle’s boiling, but in this weather – can you explain that? Where have they gone? Not to post a letter or cut a lettuce! Why don’t they come back? I didn’t tell you, the kettle wasn’t boiling in a nice quiet respectable manner, it was boiling over. Oh, and there was a bread-knife on the floor.”

When I was ranting about discussing The Floating Admiral (read it you might have a giggle) with you all the other day I mentioned my love of the golden age of crime novels. Mystery in White reminded me just why that is the case, before promptly making me quite cross that duds like the aforementioned Detection Club’s offering have been  in print almost continually where as gems like this haven’t. Sorry, I need to let it go, but it is quite cross making.

Mystery in White has everything you need in a brilliant crime novel. It has a situation we can all imagine ourselves in, stranded in snow (as I very nearly was yesterday on the motorway of all places), it has a group of strangers who know nothing about each other and might have all kinds of secrets, it has a creepy old mansion house as its setting, it has one or potentially two crazy murderers about and it is thrilling with a slight sense of horror and the supernatural about it hiding in the corners of every room or behind every tree. Most importantly of course there are no mobile phones and so there will be no help, well not until the snow thaws and melts and who knows if these unlucky souls will last the night.

The cast of characters too is almost perfect for its era. David is clearly the hero, though he hasn’t quite got the range in terms of brains. Lydia is his plucky sister who will not be treated as just a mere girl. Jessie is the typical damsel in distress, spraining her ankle and fainting around chapter three – though note, she may be a chorus girl but she might have the second sight. Mr Hopkins is initially referred to only as ‘the bore’ yet once in the warmth a slyer seedier side is revealed. Mr Thomson, with no P, is the flaky man who blunders rather. Mr Smith, the dodgy bloke from East London with the cockney accent. And then there is Mr Edward Maltby, of the Royal Psychical Society, who very early on asserts himself as the lead and detective yet does he know too much?

All this would be a complete cliché with a cast of utter caricatures if it wasn’t for the fact that it was so brilliantly written and superbly plotted. If all of his books are like this I have no idea why J. Jefferson Farjeon is not much better known with all of his books in print. As you go on reading the Mystery in White not only will you be completely bamboozled as the plot takes on some brilliant twists and turns (which I will not spoil, I couldn’t see any of it coming) and as the element of horror and suspicion starts to build the atmosphere is tense and palpable, it is honestly marvellous.

I think a Mystery in White could be one of my crime novels of the year. I was genuinely hooked by the plot, reading the book in two or three sittings; I enjoyed the cast of characters immensely. Most importantly I couldn’t see, or second guess, the ending. It also has that wonderful sense of nostalgia with it that only the novels from the golden age can produce. Here’s hoping that The British Library republishes all (over sixty, wow) of Farjeon’s books, if they do I will be one of the first in the queue to get my mitts on them.

I am tempted to advise you, if you have yet to read the book, to grab a copy and cancel all your plans for Wednesday evening. Just curl up with this instead and you will have one of the most enjoyable New Years Eve’s you could hope for. Who else has read Mystery in White and what did you make of it? Were you lucky enough to get it for Christmas? Have any of you read any of the other crime classics that The British Library is publishing? Naturally I want to read all of them now, though they will have quite something to live up to.

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Filed under Books of 2014, British Library Crime Classics, J. Jefferson Farjeon, Review